How I Fixed My Strained Relationship With My Mother
I found the courage to look honestly at my relationship with my mother and express my real feelings to her
I used to have a very strained relationship with my mother. It was difficult for me to talk to her on the phone for ten minutes without becoming emotional or agitated. I would lose my patience when she accused me of lying (as she did with all family members), micromanaged me, nagged me, made racist comments, and refused to admit she was wrong. I know now these are difficult aspects of her personality that will never change and are just irritations I must deal with. There are other aspects of our strained relationship, such as the exhausting way she would push her gifts on me and lecture me on my “wrong” life choices while misunderstanding many of my driving motivations, which I contribute to and have the power to change.
I became tired of the strained nature of our relationship which persisted for many years without improvement. I spent most of our moments together waiting for them to end. They felt like they lasted for an eternity even though it was only a few weeks out of the year. I wanted to be able to see and communicate with my mother without becoming emotional, losing my patience, and acting in un-respectful ways. If she could not be the maternally warm mother I want, I could at least maintain a civil relationship with her and help her when I can.
I consulted my therapist on the more difficult and recurring interactions I had with my mother to understand how the family dynamics were driving them and how my behavior was lacking in certain ways. I realized my mother’s exhausting bids are just her child-like attempts at reassurance and connection. She wants to love deeply and steadily but she is clumsy in taking care of me. I think my mother was not filled up with enough stable, patient, and reliable love in her childhood so she rarely felt safe. Thus, she turned into an anxious parent who passed anxious tendencies on to her daughter. I rarely felt safe as a child because my mother did not know how to make me feel safe. She could not pass on something she never experienced herself. Before I had therapy, I did not know how to properly handle these exhausting requests for reassurance and attention.
My mother showed her love for me through her gifts like clothes and food, but the way she went about giving them to me was urgent and suffocating. For example, she would barge into my room while I was in the middle of working on something which required concentration, like my taxes, and tell me she bought a dress for me and that I must try it on for her now. She insisted I keep the dress whether I wanted to or not. In the past, I did not have the sense of calm or skills to be able to handle her urgent attitude well. I would have said, “I’m busy” or “Just put it on the bed and I’ll look later.” These responses would not be satisfactory for my mother, who would keep insisting that I try the dress on. I quickly lost patience with her in these situations, while she continued to push me. The cycle repeated over and over again, leaving both my mother and I aggravated and neither benefitting from these encounters.
I recounted one of these incidents with my therapist as part of my effort to improve my perpetually strained relationship with my mother. My therapist suggested that my mother, who we both understood to be emotionally stunted, was not getting sufficient recognition and acknowledgment for her efforts to care for me. This was why she continued to push me even when I resisted. Unfortunately, my mother did not have enough emotional control and maturity to be able to let the issue go until it was a better time for me. She simply gets an idea and must impose her will immediately. On my side, being in my parents’ house was already an anxiety-inducing experience for me. Any sense of being pushed by my parents sent me into a vortex of anxiety.
My therapist coached me through how I could handle these encounters more healthily and calmly. Firstly, when my mother tried to give me something, even an item I do not want, I could take more time in my response to her bid, so she feels more acknowledged. I could say, “That’s a lovely dress. Where did you buy it?” If my mother needed more acknowledgment, I could look at the dress and make some comments about the style or color. If my mother asked me to try on the dress and it was not a good time for me, I could say, “I appreciate the gift, Mom, but I’m in the middle of doing my taxes now. I’ll come to talk to you a bit later if that’s alright with you.” By responding this way, I maintain management of the situation and do not lose my center. I make the effort to acknowledge my mother so she is reassured and satisfied, and we can have a moment of connection. However, if she pushes too much, I do not give in to anxiety. Instead, I draw some boundaries by setting another time for a continued conversation. She feels like I am making time for her and I do not feel like she is suffocating me.
I began to look honestly at my relationship with my mother and how I behaved in it. It became immediately clear to me that I was not treating her respectfully, one of the habits I picked up from my father’s unfortunate treatment of her. I was constantly cutting my mother off in conversation, something I consciously refrained from doing to others. I certainly hated it when it happened to me. It was a family relationship dynamic that I absorbed and automatically repeated without thinking about it. Once this realization crystallized in my head, I immediately resolved to stop this pattern in my interactions with her.
I realized I had developed a pattern of not telling her the real reasons behind some of my decisions, thus she had the wrong idea about my thought process. It was another unfortunate family dynamic I picked up from my father to avoid difficult conversations with her. Thus, my mother had many misinterpretations about the motivations of some of my behaviors because I took the easy way out in my interactions with her and did not express some of my true feelings, the real reasons behind many decisions I made which she disagreed with, and the hard truths of how her behavior affected me as a child.
My habit of shying out of telling hard truths had a stronger history though. I was more used to parroting what my parents wanted me to say than I was speaking my real opinion. My parents treated me like a carbon copy of an Asian daughter, fulfilling the ideal path of obtaining straight A’s, never getting into trouble, speaking great Cantonese, going to a great college, landing a high paying job, and living close to parents. My mother thought I was an extension of her, expecting that I would like all Chinese and Vietnamese desserts and dishes she did. My mother did not respect my physical boundaries like my private space. She barged into my room and urgently demanded my attention even if I said I was occupied. In these conditions, it was often easier for me to acquiesce to their wishes than it was to push back too hard. Thus, I usually told them the version of my opinions which I knew they would find the least offensive.
There was no space in my parents’ household for me to be a real person with my own space. I feel like my parents never knew who I was underneath the projection of their ideas. They do not know my passions, interests, hobbies, and goals. My parents and I never had extended conversations that centered around these topics. They have not heard many of the stories I tell others about my core motivating factors like my passions for environmentalism and female empowerment. There was no room for me to have romantic relationships. I felt invisible under their projected ideas for a long time until I started finding my voice and making my own decisions. I do not completely fault them for this because I think this is how the hierarchy of Chinese families usually operates. My parents checked on me enough to ensure I would be materially successful. For them, their parental duty was fulfilled if they ensured I would not be penniless.
One thing I missed from this dynamic is a mirror of my positive qualities growing up. According to Jasmin Lee Cori, mothers usually play the role of the mirror for a daughter’s strengths, talents, fears, and hopes. Mothers reflect these qualities for their daughters so they become aware of them. This is one of the most important roles of a mother. Those who had mothers who did this for them develop strong identities and are self-assured. Those who did not have a maternal mirror in their life feel misunderstood and unseen. I felt the effects of this recently when I realized I was blind to some of my soft qualities. For instance, I knew I was an intelligent, resourceful, and strong-willed person (because of my academic and professional successes) but it was not until others told me I was thoughtful and caring that I identified these qualities in myself. A maternal mirror would have identified these qualities in me much earlier.
It was not until I dug into how the effects of childhood trauma endure and continue into adulthood that I connected the dots between my mother’s child-like behavior and my difficulties in dealing with her. My mother was emotionally neglected as a child by a dictator-like mother. This deficiency, compounded with other pressures such as marital tensions, led to a huge disconnect between me and her. It saddens me to realize the cost of these traumas on our relationship, which has been difficult and a source of stress for me for many years. I decided it was time to bury the hatchet between us and find a way to make it work. Mark Manson’s Life Lessons in Your 30’s stated this is the decade many tragic and unexpected events come to pass: friends get divorced, miscarriages happen, parents die, spouses die, and even children die. Thus, there is no more time to not grow up.
As part of taking personal responsibility to improve my relationship with my mother, I commit to expressing my real feelings to her. There were times when I did not bother to explain myself because it was so much effort with the language barrier and the pressure they exerted with her expectations. I felt like there was such a huge gulf between our ways of thinking that explaining would have taken more time and effort than I wanted to expend. Now I understand these honest conversations are necessary for a healthier relationship. I commit to myself that I will make the effort to speak my truth and explain until my mother understands. If my mother does not want to discuss the issue — this has already happened once when I confronted misaligned expectations we had — I will not push the issue. I uphold myself to do all of my part which is to speak my truth to her.
During my discussions with my mother now, she admits there were some things she did wrong. This is particularly important for me to hear because it sets the example for me that mistakes are tolerable and can be overlooked. Seeing her take responsibility for some of her wrongdoing is also a necessary model of maturity for me. I have changed the image of my mother in my head from the child-like idea that she is a powerful figure to a multi-dimensional, flawed human being who does have insight into my blind spots. I can learn to have patience with her when she tries to incorporate my feedback into how she treats me. I can give her the opportunity to make up for her failings during my childhood. I can also accept that she has a difficult personality that I must accept if I want to improve my relationship with her. With this in mind, I can see hope for an improved relationship between us.
“The shortfalls of our parents offer us an expertise that is wasted if it stays stuck at the level of just criticism. It should become the template for a far more useful project. The creation of an inner ideal parent who acts in all the ways in which the real thing should have done but did not quite. Knowing so much about what we did not have enables us to be experts at what we need and should believe we can provide for ourselves. We already have the perfect inner parent. It is simply in many ways the opposite of the one we had.
Though childhood is a one-off event in material time, in psychological time, it is endlessly recurring. The eight-year-old us is still there and we can talk to her and respond to her in a way that allows her to mature and strengthen in the way she always should have.” — The School of Life